Charles Tan (GUEST)

CHARLES TAN, one of our guest reviewers, is the owner of the blogs Bibliophile Stalker and Comic Quest. He also edits Philippine Speculative Fiction. You can read his fiction in that publication and in The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories. Charles has conducted interviews for The Nebula Awards and The Shirley Jackson Awards, as well as for online magazines such as SF Crowsnest and SFScope. He is a regular contributor to sites like SFF Audio and Comics Village.

White Time: Unique YA story collection

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White Time by Margo Lanagan

In the collection White Time, Margo Lanagan writes with a clear, distinctive style that doesn’t spoon-feed, but rather challenges the reader in a good way. Her text is multi-layered and works on multiple levels to create interesting speculative fiction stories, some using the tropes of science fiction and some those of fantasy.

White Time features ten stories, and each is unique and different. The eponymous story, "White Time," is the opener for this publication. Lanagan combines a strong sci-fi concept with grounded, complex characters. This piece sets the mood for the rest, as it shows that one of Lanagan's strengths is writing compelling characters and human drama. Another favorite is "The Boy Who Didn't Yearn," which takes place in an urban setting. The protagonist has a particular trai... Read More

Lords of Rainbow: Epic fantasy with no baggage

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Lords of Rainbow by Vera Nararian

A decade ago, I was a big fan of secondary-world fantasies: big sprawling epic plots, an entirely different but familiar setting, and larger than life characters. Had I read Lords of Rainbow back then, I would have immediately fallen in love with it. As I am now, however, there's a lot less unabashed praise for that particular sub-genre and I've become more critical.

What's obviously commendable with Vera Nazarian is that her cosmology isn't a random hodgepodge of ideas but rather a cohesion of a single, united vision. As can be gleaned from the title, the rainbow — or rather the colors of the rainbow — plays a consistent role all throughout the novel. Right from the very start, one gets a sense that the narrative has its own unique culture as Nazarian uses alien terms and expressions, refer... Read More

Spicy Slipstream Stories: If you love pulps…

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Spicy Slipstream Stories edited by Nick Namatas & Jay Lake

Slipstream, for me, is a type of fiction that is bizarre and confusing and defies expectations. That's not a bad thing, mind you, but to quote a passage from the introduction of the book, "You don't write slipstream, you read it." And so it was a big surprise when I started reading the stories in this anthology. They're actually — gasp — readable, or at least accessible to lay people without needing literary degrees or geeky credentials. In fact, the selections impressed me because they all stood out, and I can honestly say there's no bad story in this book. If I have any complaints with this anthology, surprisingly enough, it's because I feel some of the stories aren't that slipstream, that they're still too coherent and identifiable. But is that really such a bad trait?

The pulp influences this anthology draws upon migh... Read More

Vault of Deeds: Fantasy satire

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Vault of Deeds by James Barclay

Vault of Deeds proved to be a funny read as James Barclay plays on heroic fantasy conventions, not unlike Jim C. Hines or A. Lee Martinez. In this novella, it's up to a scribe — in this case someone who records the deeds of heroes — to save the day.

Barclay's writing is easy to get into but goes beyond simply being functional or serviceable. Dialogue and action are frequently utilized to draw the readers in, and comedy is provided by the verbose and exaggerated prose spoken by the protagonists. Since this is a parody, I can't really blame Barclay for using two-dimensional heroes and villains. There's also no dallying here as Barclay gets us to the action quickly and the fight scenes are also quite commendable.

If you're going to read Vault of Deeds, do it to tickle your funny bone. Honestly, some of the fantasy satire I've already seen b... Read More

Strange Wisdoms of the Dead: Tricky and fanciful poems

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Strange Wisdoms of the Dead by Mike Allen

I thought Strange Wisdoms of the Dead would be yet another attempt to convert me into a fan of speculative poetry, but leafing through the pages of this book I found something more massive. This is a comprehensive Mike Allen anthology covering ten years of work, compiling not just his poems but his fiction and collaborations as well.

Allen's poetry does dominate this book. Whether he's talking about time sharks, spiders, or decapitated heads, Allen evokes visceral images that surprise and entice. If you're just looking for variety, Strange Wisdoms of the Dead delivers as the poet tackles fantasy, science fiction, and horror in an array of tricky and fanciful poems. "Morse Code," for example, approaches the title through more "natural" means, evoking the buzzing ... Read More

The Faery Reel: Tales from the Twilight Realm

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The Faery Reel: Tales from the Twilight Realm edited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling

The Faery Reel is an indispensable tome for anyone who has a mania for faeries. Aside from the short stories in this anthology, the comprehensive introduction of Terri Windling on the fey and the illustrations by Charles Vess are worth the price of admission in themselves. Moreover, the last few pages feature a Further Reading section on the topic of faeries. The typography of the book is appropriate to the faery theme and makes the text quite readable. In other words, it's a really pretty book.

But The Faery Reel isn't just about exterior beauty, and I'd still buy the book if only for the story selections and the poetry. There are actually a lot of stories I liked in this anthology, and choosing a select few to ta... Read More

Template: Piques the readers curiosity and sense of wonder

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Template by Matthew Hughes

Template opens with an exciting scene as the protagonist, Conn, a skilled swordsman, successfully defends himself from three opponents. You'd think this would turn into another action/adventure SF novel but Template instead drifts into mystery and philosophy as our protagonist suddenly finds himself with various choices when he previously had none.

Conn is likable enough at the start although later on we discover that his paradigms are alien. This becomes a recurring theme as Matthew Hughes presents planets and races with varying ethics, which enables him to insert philosophical discourse in a way that flows naturally with the story.

The language is easy to get into and quite functional. The text isn't too long but what Hughes lacks in density, he makes up for with his pacing an... Read More

Fast Ships, Black Sails: Pirates and adventure!

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Fast Ships, Black Sails edited by Jeff and Ann Vandermeer

I was never a big fan of pirates (ninjas, on the other hand...) but nonetheless, the very word evokes adventure and the high seas. Fast Ships, Black Sails doesn't really stray far from that expectation and delivers eighteen stories marked with action, treachery, and a sense of wonder.

A good chunk of the stories revolve around traditional concepts of a pirate, with only a few exceptions, such as "Boojum" by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette, which takes place in space. The rest take place on stormy waters with sea-worthy vessels manned by rascally... Read More

The Good Fairies of New York

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The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar

Martin Millar’s writing is consistently funny and entertaining. And while The Good Fairies of New York is upbeat and comedic, it also has a layer of tragedy that the author manages to juggle and incorporate seamlessly. The pace is quick and precise so that by the time you're laughing or crying over a particular scene, you're already on to the next one.

Millar manages to thrown in a lot of disparate elements in this novel (rock music, Maoist teachings, exotic diseases) and make them work. The writing is strong — it’s easy to get into and there's no room for confusion, even when Millar is juggling a dozen interweaving characters from two distinct parts of the world.
His characters are another asset — whether it's the fairies who consistently get into trouble despite their best efforts, or the human chara... Read More

Pretty Monsters: A pretty good collection

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Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link

Pretty Monsters is Kelly Link's latest short story collection aimed at young adults. My young adult phase passed a long time ago but I found this book to be as deep and packed as Link's Magic for Beginners and Stranger Things Happen.

The first thing that caught my eye is the overall aesthetic of the book. The jacket, designed by Will Staeble, is upbeat and eye-catching, whether it's simply the presentation of the blurbs or the text on the cover flap. Shaun Tan's art also precedes each story and there's an apt phrase or two below the neat and refined illustration.

As for the stories themselves, there are nine all in all, with one story original to this collection, the titular "Pretty Monsters." Most of the stories are recent, although there are a few reprints of stori... Read More

The Duke in His Castle: Slow build-up, big pay-off

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The Duke in His Castle

The novella The Duke in His Castle starts out like a conventional fairy tale but it soon spirals into a plotty story with unexpected twists. Admittedly, the book didn't hook me at first, especially with its rude protagonist (not quite the initial sympathetic hero but some readers will grow fond of him) and the bare-bones setting (everything takes places in a castle) but Vera Nazarian turns things around as the enigma surrounding our main character slowly unfolds.

There are two key figures in the story and both have distinctive, unique personalities that definitely set them apart from the norm. Nazarian's talent is in her language: on one hand, her dialog is direct and blunt while her narrative is verbose and detailed. I wouldn't say Nazarian's writing is mesmerizing or lyrical, but it definitely goes beyond being simply functional. It hark... Read More

The Secret History of Moscow: Russian mythology makes an enchanting story

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The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia

Much praise has been attached to The Secret History of Moscow and I can understand why. Ekaterina Sedia weaves an enchanting story drawing from both Russian mythology and history. I'm not really familiar with Russian myth (or history for that matter) but that didn't hindered me from appreciating this novel. I expect that readers more educated in those areas will appreciate all the allusions Sedia includes in The Secret History of Moscow.

However, the real strength of The Secret History of Moscow is Sedia's writing and how closely she pays attention to characterization. This novel has a huge cast, and in nearly every chapter Sedia devotes time to flesh out the histories and personalities of various characters — whether they're the heroes of the story or merely vi... Read More

The Vampire Chronicles: Vampires and gumshoes

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THE VAMPIRE CHRONICLES Vol 1: BloodList, LifeBlood, BloodCircle by P.N. Elrod

The Vampire Chronicles compiles the first three books in P.N. Elrod's series featuring Jack Fleming who, in case you haven't deduced by the title, is a vampire.

What makes this series different from most other recent vampire novels is that Elrod combines an old familiar trope with something familiar but not usually associated with vampires: noir detectives. Her characters are believably of the gumshoe type and include those hopeful yet gray sensibilities that were products of that era. That is easily Elrod's strength, so if you're a fan of the pulps and radio dramas (Elrod even references The Shadow multiple times throughout the novels), this is perhaps ... Read More

Hart & Boot & Other Stories: By Tim Pratt

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Hart & Boot & Other Stories by Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt’s second short story collection, Hart & Boot & Other Stories, features 13 stories that tackle various concepts and genres. While most of the stories still retain that mythology-inspired influence that is undeniably Pratt, they tend to have more closure compared to the stories in the previous collection. They’re nonetheless quick and easy reads, however, and anyone can get immersed in Pratt’s writing style.

Somehow, Tim Pratt manages to write stories called “Romanticore” and “Lachrymose and the Golden Egg” yet end up with a serious, compelling story that doesn't make the title sound ludicrous. My favorite story in the collection, hands down, is the aforementioned “Romanticore.” The protagonist has a unique — if sometimes unsympathetic — voice, the mix of reality with fantasy ... Read More

Interworld: Simple language, big ideas, lovable characters, compelling story

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Interworld by Neil Gaiman & Michael Reaves

In Interworld, Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves manage to tell a story that's full of science-fiction elements and concepts but is yet quite accessible to any reader, young or old.
The premise is simple and isn't anything new as far as sci-fi tropes are concerned: a kid with no sense of direction discovers he can travel the multiverse.
Of course during this short novel, various themes and issues are tackled without detracting from the story.

The strength of Interworld, I think, are the characters. Joey Harker, the protagonist, is quite sympathetic and compelling, yet he's not the only interesting character. There's the mysterious Jay, the wise Mr. Dimas, and the various cast of villains.

If there's anything lack... Read More

Cartomancy: Fun middle book ends in a cliffhanger

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Cartomancy by Michael A. Stackpole

It's not uncommon for the second book in a fantasy trilogy to suffer the middle-book syndrome — a transition novel that doesn't live up to the quality of the preceding volume but is essential in appreciating the third. Thankfully, that isn't the case with Cartomancy, the sequel to A Secret Atlas.

In fact, Cartomancy is more exciting because Michael Stackpole planted the seeds in the first novel and what you get here is all the action and excitement. Moreover, Stackpole has not only mastered the art of integrating various characters and plots, but knows when to end his chapters, whetting the readers' appetites and leaving them wanting more.

Another element going for Stackpole is that while this is undeniably traditional epic fantasy, h... Read More

Best American Fantasy: Literary and adventurous fantasy stories

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Best American Fantasy by Jeff VanderMeer (ed.)

The first thing that stands out is that if I merely stuck to looking for fantasy stories from the usual sources, I probably wouldn't have come across many of the short stories in this anthology. And that I think is the strength of Best American Fantasy — that it reprints stories some genre readers were never aware of. That's not to say this doesn't have its fair share of "expected" stories but for the most part, it's been a real treat. The editors also reveal their favored style as the fiction not only leans towards the literary but to the adventurous side as well.

I did enjoy most of these stories and a few were challenging reads for me. There were three stories that really stood out. "Origin Story" by Kelly Link is a fant... Read More

Ill Wind: Not brain food, just a guilty pleasure

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Ill Wind by Rachel Caine

Ill Wind is the first book in Rachel Caine's urban fantasy series Weather Warden. The book stands well on its own and doesn't have any of those nasty cliffhangers so often found in fantasy series, but it still keeps you interested in what happens in the next book.

Ill Wind starts in the middle of the action and I was impressed with the first chapter because Caine seamlessly juxtaposes the present with flashbacks and keeps readers on the edge of their seats. This world's magic system is also original and, thankfully, Caine manages to narrate an exciting tale to accompany it.

Ill Wind has a lot of elements that identify it as an urban fantasy but without overdoing it. There's romance in the book (albeit a predictable one) but unlike, say, Read More

Little Gods: An elegant collection by Tim Pratt

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Little Gods by Tim Pratt

A friend of mine simply adores Tim Pratt and so my curiosity was piqued when I saw this short story collection in the bookstore. Little Gods isn't thick by any means (at under 300 pages) but it does include 14 short stories.

First off, I really, really love the book design. Second, the book has an introduction by Michaela Rossner, and then an afterword in which Tim Pratt talks about his stories. As for the stories themselves, the adjective that best describes them is “elegant.” Whether Pratt's stories are very, very short (and seem to end abruptly) or long, his writing style is beautiful in its simplicity — not elaborate and filled with overdone descriptions, but rather the type that anyone can appreciate. Pratt’s endings tend to be open, yet there’s enough closure for them to be considered an actual story.

Read More

Trial of Flowers: Leaves sophisticated readers wanting more

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Trial of Flowers by Jay Lake

Despite having read two Jay Lake novels (Rocket Science and Mainspring), they didn't prepare me for Trial of Flowers. This is an entirely different animal; Right from the outset you're hit with stylistic language, a complex tapestry of characters and plot, and most importantly, a flat-out weirdness and originality that tends to be missing from most mainstream fantasy novels.

Lake juggles several characters, each with their own level of depravity, yet these are the characters you're rooting for and sympathizing with. The setting — the City Imperishable — is quite distinct with its unconventionality: factions of boxed dwarfs, crossbow-wielding clown guards, and mysterious edicts such as the so-called Trial of Flowers. Each "chapter" (the book has no chapters but rather it is divided according to point of view) is a compelling page-turner that leaves sophist... Read More

Dreams of the Compass Rose: Unique format

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Dreams of the Compass Rose by Vera Nazarian

Vera Nazarianemploys a fairly traditional and even romantic method of narration, but what makes Dreams of the Compass Rose unique is its format. It's reminiscent of mosaic novels or even the high fantasy equivalent of Jack Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth as each chapter stands well on its own and explores a facet of the various characters. I like the Tales of the Dying Earth comparison, as a minor character in the previous story might take center stage in the next.

The narrative isn't chronological and with all the character-leaping, Dreams of the Compass Rose isn't the most acces... Read More

Poe: 19 New Tales Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe

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Poe: 19 New Tales Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe edited by Ellen Datlow

Whether you're aligned with the literary academia or an unabashed genre reader, the name Edgar Allan Poe commands much respect. I think it's only fitting that a modern anthology inspired by the author's body of work should be released on his 200th anniversary. Kudos to Solaris Books for taking on the task of publishing such a book, which all comes together with the firm editorial direction of Ellen Datlow. Datlow, for me, has been an editor who's less impressed with literary fireworks or verbal acrobatics but focuses more on the meat and bones of the story, its fundamentals if you will. In that respect, Poe lives up to that promise. That's not to say the stories will immediately grip you. In fact, a good chunk of them take time to develop. But for the most part, the patience and the struggle are well worth the wait, and what's consist... Read More

Strange Tales of Secret Lives: Flash fiction from VanderMeer

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Strange Tales of Secret Lives by Jeff VanderMeer

I had absolutely no idea what to expect from Strange Tales of Secret Lives and this book certainly did surprise. Jeff VanderMeer explains the origins of Secret Lives in the introduction: this is a collection of various short stories of (hopefully) fictional what-ifs of real people: a researcher is really a king, a pharmacist plans to live the double-life of a detective, etc.

I'm not a fan of flash fiction and most of the stories here definitely fall under that category yet VanderMeer manages to write it with such imagination and gusto that it becomes palatable, even when reading it all in one sitting. What VanderMeer does differently is that he doesn't stick to a formula even if the premise of the collection seems to require it. He mixes things up, changes the pattern, inter-relates conse... Read More

The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2008

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The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2008

For me, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2008 has been a two-headed beast. On one hand, it's an eagerly anticipated book by people involved in the industry, usually for the summation at the front of the book and the honorable mentions list at the back. The various editors are quite thorough and detailed when it comes to this part. The other aspect is, of course, the story/poetry selection, which is what will likely attract the casual reader.

So, how does it actually fare? Well, with regards to the first aspect, there are no disappointments. When covering the highlights of the previous year (and alas, the obituaries) and the various media (comics, movies, and music) in which either fantasy or horror plays a part, the book has it covered. The writing is functional and achieves what it sets out to do.

With re... Read More

Rocket Science: Conspiracies and adventure in Kansas

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Rocket Science by Jay Lake

At first glance, Rocket Science might seem like a very short read at under 200 pages, but Jay Lake makes every word count. Set in a post-World War II Kansas, the novel starts off with a mundane premise but as one progresses through the book, Lake slowly adds an additional element of conflict so that by the time you reach the end, Rocket Science is a great novel about conspiracies, betrayal, family, friendship, and adventure.

Lake's language is simple enough, yet is also reflective of the era he is trying to portray. No lyrical prose here or extravagant descriptions, but what you get is an easy to comprehend narrative. The strength of the book, however, is Lake's characterization of our protagonist, Vernon. It is through his lens that we experience everything that is going on and while he is fa... Read More

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